In a seminal essay titled “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” philosopher Louis Althusser outlines his approach to ideology. For Althusser, the concepts that “make up ideology do not have an ideal or spiritual existence, but a material existence” (1971, 165). The implication is that ideology is based in the material world and our interactions with and within it. Ideology is propagated through what Althusser calls Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). Althusser states that there are numerous ISAs, which appear seemingly disparate and distinct from each other; examples include churches, schools, families, and the media. What unites them is a shared function in naturalizing ideology, or “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (ibid., 162). Ideology can thus be taken-for-granted knowledge about the world and one’s place in it; ideological statements present themselves as “obvious” and “common sense,” and we are inclined to take them as fact, nature, or truth (ibid., 171–77). There is no outside to ideology. Subjects are born into ideology and inhabit specific positions within it; in fact, for Althusser, the subject is an ideological effect, and we are “always-already subjects” (ibid., 143–79).
ISAs turn individuals into subjects of ideology through the process of “interpellation” (ibid., 163). Interpellation describes the processes by which individuals recognize themselves as subjects. This begins with the act of “hailing,” which Althusser explains in the example of a policeman walking down the street and shouting: “Hey, you there!” Thus hailed, the individual responds by turning to the policeman, which indicates the individual’s recognition of him or herself as the one being hailed. The individual is subject to the law and interpellated into it through the hail. Interpellation can thus be described as “the process by which you recognise yourself to belong to a particular identity” (Palu 2011, 166). If the hail “identifies and constructs a social position for the addressee” (Fiske 1998, 308), then interpellation situates the individual in a subject position. Responding to the hail, the individual as always-already subject is interpellated into ideology (ibid., 303). In this way, interpellation and ideology go hand in hand.
The existence of ideology and the hailing or interpellation of individuals as subjects are one and the same thing.
While the idea of interpellation has been adopted by cultural and media studies, Althusser’s arguments have also been criticized for the lack of agency that they accord individuals. There is little room in Althusser’s theory for individuals to resist. As cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall rightly observes, Althusser’s approach to ideology is somewhat “functionalist,” and does not “account for subversive ideas or for ideological struggle” (1996, 30–31), which undisputedly occur in reality. One can also (re)act differently in response to the hail (Ranciere 1992; Butler 1998).
Nevertheless, interpellation as a tool is not entirely without its merits. In cultural and media studies, it is commonly used in the analysis of advertisements and television programs (for example, Fiske 1998). Even if separated from the term “ideology,” interpellation helps us to identify cultural assumptions and biases present in texts, as well as to articulate the norms and mores of producers of those texts. Media theorist David Gauntlett observes that “interpellation occurs when a person connects with a media text,” and “uncritical consumption means that the text has interpellated us into a certain set of assumptions, and caused us to tacitly accept a particular approach to the world” (2002, 27). In this way, interpellation opens the way for analyses of how media works to establish an emotional connection with audiences and, in doing so, draws them into inhabiting certain identities and subject positions.
This is especially relevant for media targeting children, who perhaps have not yet developed critical faculties. Research on television programs for children draw attention to their power to interpellate audiences into ideology. As noted by sociologist Mary Grigsby (1999, 186–88) in her analysis of Sailor Moon and Crayon Shin-Chan, children’s programs have much to say about social and gender roles in Japan. For example, Usagi, the teenage protagonist of Sailor Moon, is a contemporary Japanese girl that is cute, powerful, caring, and sexy (ibid., 193–99; see also Allison 2006, chap. 5). As a teenager, magical warrior, future mother, and sexy schoolgirl, Usagi says much about contemporary Japanese girls and what they are, can, and should be. However, presented in the context of a children’s program, such gender expectations and ideology may go unquestioned by viewers, who are hailed and interpellated.
Perhaps even more so than Sailor Moon, the children’s television program Samurai Sentai Shinkenger (hereafter referred to as Shinkenger) offers an example of how interpellation works to create subjects of ideology. More specifically, the program has much to say about gender expectations and ideology, particularly that of being a (good) wife and mother, which is a recurrent theme of the character Shiraishi Mako in her interactions with other characters. Airing from 2009 to 2010, Shinkenger is part of the Super Sentai franchise and falls into the tokusatsu genre, a term used to describe live-action programs that heavily utilize special effects. Consistent with the format of the Super Sentai franchise (see Gill 1998; Allison 2006, chap. 4), a team of six young adults transform into color-coded superheroes in order to defend the earth against evil intruders. Every episode sees the team face off against a different “monster of the week” and usually ends with the featured protagonist learning a lesson or two about him or herself and the team. Intended for children, Super Sentai shows are meant to be at least somewhat pedagogical and teach their audiences to be good individuals, team members, and citizens (Gill 1998; Allison 2006, chap. 4).
Specific to Shinkenger, the main team is made up of samurai warriors who, until being called into battle, lived relatively normal lives separate from one another. While hierarchy is always implied in Super Sentai shows (Gill 1998, 40), Shinkenger makes it preestablished in the team. Red is the lord, or tono, and the others are bound by tradition and duty to serve him—despite being strangers when they first met. As Shinkengers, they aim to prevent Dōkoku, the main antagonist, and his army from flooding the world with water from the Sanzu River. As a genre, tokusatsu tends to cater to male audiences, but Super Sentai shows have more female characters—and Shinkenger is no exception. In addition to Red, who is male, there are two other male Shinkengers (Blue and Green) and two female Shinkengers (Pink and Yellow), with an additional male sushi seller-turned-samurai (Gold) joining the team later. For tokusatsu, Super Sentai in general and Shinkenger specifically have a larger than average female audience, and the presence of strong female characters that transform into superheroes offers girls in the audience something to identify with. This is significant, as the process of interpellation begins when individuals are hailed and recognize themselves as the one being hailed.
In Shinkenger, we can observe gender expectations and ideology in contemporary Japanese society by examining the character of Shiraishi Mako, the Pink Shinkenger. In line with the norms of the Super Sentai franchise and society, pink is always a female color, but Mako appears as more than a color-coded stereotype. Shinkenger readily acknowledges the strength of its female characters, be it their ferocity in battle or their team status. Mako is clearly a strong character, as can be seen from the order of the Shinkenger roll call. Before facing a monster, it is a common trope in the Super Sentai franchise for the team to announce its name, as well as those of individual members; the order in which the characters introduce themselves is indicative of their place in the team’s hierarchy. In Shinkenger, Red (Takeru) goes first in the roll call, establishing his status as leader; he is followed by Blue (Ryūnosuke), Pink (Mako), Green (Chiaki), and Yellow (Kotoha). By having Mako announce herself before Green, a male character, the show establishes her higher status.
In addition to this, Mako proves her worth repeatedly throughout the series. She is frequently portrayed as an individual who is calm and collected, and she tries to keep her team members from behaving rashly. In later episodes, Mako frequently berates the Red Shinkenger and challenges him to be more open with the team. Such interactions seem to be between equals, rather than between lord and vassal. This behavior is contrasted with that of the Blue Shinkenger, who, while male, always treats Red with deference and respect. In this way, Mako is portrayed as a strong and independent female character.
Notably, being capable and powerful is not at odds with conforming to gender expectations and ideology. Mako’s strength as a fighter coexists with her stated goal of becoming a wife; she explicitly refers to this goal time and again in the series. One of the first episodes to focus on Mako specifically has her masquerading as a newlywed bride. While Shinkenger does not position these two identities directly against each other, it does say what a woman is, ought to be, and ought to aspire to be: married.
Not only is Mako presented as a future wife, but she is also a mother, which is established from an episode focusing on Mako and Yellow, the other female Shinkenger. The plot revolves around the two female Shinkengers looking after children who have been abandoned by their parents. This plot is in stark contrast to episodes that focus on male characters. In those episodes, there is usually conflict between the two male characters, which they overcome to save the day. The difference in the episodes seems to suggest that females are nurturing and caring, because it is common sense that if any Shinkenger is going to look after children it will be the female Shinkengers. It is common sense and natural that they would do so, which resonates with the commonly held belief—speaking to gender expectations and ideology—in Japan that women should be the center of the home and care for children (Allison 1991, 205).
Mako in particular seems to embody gender expectations and ideology. Anthropologist Tom Gill argues that there is a class system in Super Sentai teams, whereby each character has “reasons to be content with his or her station, for each has a special set of skills” (1998, 40). For her part, Mako’s station seems to be the role of “mother.” This is demonstrated in small ways, for example how Mako is first introduced: working as a kindergarten teacher surrounded by children. Mako’s caring nature and tendency to look after those who have been hurt is constantly brought up, and she appears to be the calming voice in times of conflict. She is established as the motherly figure of the team, although perhaps due to them being almost the same age, the other Shinkengers call her an “older sister” instead. Early on in the series, Green starts calling Mako his older sister, demonstrating his respect for her and the way she looks after the team. Yellow constantly expresses her admiration for Mako’s caring nature and frequently states her wish to be more like Mako. These reactions to Mako emphasize how ideal her traits are. She is contrasted with Yellow, the only other female and the youngest of the team, who aspires to be like Mako, which can be read as encouraging younger girls in the audience to do the same.
Worth singling out is Mako’s inability to cook. The first episode that the audience learns of this is one in which Mako makes Blue a boxed lunch. When presenting it to him, Mako mentions that she put a lot of effort into it and hopes he will finish eating it. This act of preparing boxed lunches is part of the gender expectations and ideology of Japan, where doing so marks one as a good mother and wife (Allison 1991, 201–6). Unfortunately for Mako, her cooking skills are sorely lacking, and children in the audience, whose mothers make their boxed lunches, are expected to laugh at the charred and unappetizing food prepared by Mako. This becomes a recurring joke throughout the series: The boys laugh at Mako’s bad cooking, usually alluding in some way to her dream of being married one day. Each time Mako cooks, she does so happily and with the intention of demonstrating her affection for the team (her family, as it were).
Ultimately, it seems like common sense—only natural—that Mako, like all women, is caring and aspires to be a caregiver. Throughout the series, Mako is presented as someone aspiring to become a wife and mother and as a character to emulate. In this way, Shinkenger works to interpellate its audience into ideology, or “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Althusser 1971, 162).
Through the lens of interpellation, we can better analyze how ideology functions through ISAs such as media. By creating relatable characters, which the audience is more inclined to connect to and identify with, Shinkenger encourages viewers to recognize themselves and their place in the world. This is particularly so when we consider that the main and intended audience of the Super Sentai franchise is children, who adopt these characters as role models, but ideology does not have to convince anyone. Things are presented as they are, as natural and given, the things we know without even knowing it.
In conclusion, Shinkenger shows how children are interpellated into ideology, which works through the media and products that are consumed uncritically. Hailed by such media, they are interpellated into identities and become subjects of ideology. The case of Shiraishi Mako reveals gender expectations and ideology, specifically that of the wife and mother. Given that it can be said that “among Japanese, the most powerful image of a woman is that of mother” (Grisby 1999, 195), and given that the marriage and birth rates are plummeting in Japan (Allison 2013), it seems clear that gender expectations and ideology are currently promoted by ISAs, such as media, even as they are challenged elsewhere. In presenting the common sense of women as mothers and wives to female and male viewers, Shinkenger demonstrates the potential and limits of Althusser’s approach to interpellation today.
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